Hardline clerics fail to find a niche in Iran's exclusive poll

ROBERT FISK

Tehran

On the Karaj expressway, the 20ft high posters yesterday urged Iranians to vote as an Islamic duty. "For the greatness of Islam, the continuation of reconstruction and the building of Iran," ran the legend beneath. "It's the first time I've seen the word Iran without 'Islamic Republic' printed in front of it," one of our taxi's passengers announced. "Do you think this means something?"

It's that kind of election. The Council of Experts have vetted more than 3,000 candidates for their Islamic credentials, small parties have thrown in their hand before the poll and the two large groups contesting the parliamentary election have so much in common that several of their candidates have a foot in both camps. "You must know more about this election than we do," Mohamed Ali Sayyas said yesterday at the Vanak polling station in north Tehran. If only we did.

But the poll, for all its shortcomings, in Western eyes at least, will probably decide next year's president. If the "Association of Militant Clergy" gains a majority, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri, at present the Speaker of Parliament, will succeed Hashemi Rafsanjani as President of Iran. If the "Servants of Reconstruction" gain more seats, then either Vice-President Hassan Habibi or the Mayor of Tehran, Gholamreza Khabaschi, will take office.

Yet the most fascinating aspect is that the real left-wing clergy, who have always espoused the export of an Islamic revolution and played a role creating the Lebanese Hizbollah and other groups, are totally cut off from the political process. Mehdi Kharoubi and Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, whom the West love to hate, have no role, since their Islamic "credentials" were found wanting during the last parliamentary elections.

So at the moment when the US is urging the world to isolate Iran as a bastion of "international terrorism", the men supposedly responsible for this unhappy state of affairs are so isolated that former allies would yesterday not even furnish the Independent with their telephone numbers. American journalists trying to follow up US-Israeli accusations of "terrorism" against Iran are thus finding little proof of it amid Iran's very exclusive election.

For the truth is that both the "Reconstructors" and the "Servants" are right-wing conservatives. The former may be more liberal on the Islamic dress code on women and the use of satellite dishes and the latter prefer a more Saudi-style code of conduct. But they both number the bazaaris - the free- enterprise bourgeois who originally funded Khomeini's Islamic revolution - among their ranks.

The cry for world revolution and the domestically more important calls for social justice and the alleviation of poverty, which were previously the preserve of Mr Mohtashemi and his colleagues, have virtually disappeared from the parliamentary agenda save for the tiny "House of Workers of the Islamic Republic of Iran", whose leader, Ali-Reza Mahjoub, has campaigned for a programme of Blair-like modesty, state control and careful privatisation at the same time. Other figures have had a harder time.

Ibrahim Yazdi, for example, tried to hold a press conference this week to advertise his "Liberation Party of Iran". No sooner had the liberal intellectual received approval for the meeting from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance than armed Interior Ministry troops turned up at his office, confiscated the video- cassettes of all foreign film crews and advised journalists to leave. They did. And Dr Yazdi pulled out of the election.

Nor could anyone claim to have witnessed election fever on the streets of Tehran. Two central city voting stations I called at were empty at mid-morning.

Iranian Armenians, who must elect two Armenians for parliament out of three candidates, were queuing to vote at their own church-school polling station. But at Vanak only 500 people had turned up by early afternoon. Outside the Friday prayers ceremony at Tehran university, an old man from Tabriz whose nephew was killed at Khorramshah in the first Gulf war - he had brought the body home from the battlefront in his own ambulance - expressed a desire for no change. "We are happy with what we have," he said. The real question is: if there is change, will anyone notice?

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